The French language is a Romance language, meaning that it is descended from Latin. Before the Roman invasion of what is modern-day France by Julius Cæsar (58–52 BC), France was inhabited largely by a Celtic people that the Romans referred to as Gauls, although there were also other linguistic/ethnic groups in France at this time, such as the Iberians in southern France and Spain, the Ligurians on the Mediterranean coast, Greek colonies such as Massalia (i.e. present-day Marseille), Phoenician outposts, and the Vascons on the Spanish/French border.
Although in the past many Frenchmen liked to refer to their descent from Gallic ancestors (nos ancêtres les Gaulois), perhaps fewer than 200 words with a Celtic etymological origin remain in French today (largely place and plant names and words dealing with rural life and the earth). In the reverse direction, some words for Gallic objects which were new to the Romans and for which there were no words in Latin were imported into Latin – for example, clothing items such as les braies. Latin quickly became the lingua franca of the entire Gallic region for mercantile, official and educational purposes, yet it should be remembered that this was Vulgar Latin, the colloquial dialect spoken by the Roman army and its agents and not the literary dialect of Cicero.
From the third century on, Western Europe was invaded by Germanic tribes from the east, and some of these groups settled in Gaul. For the history of the French language, the most important of these groups are the Franks in northern France, the Alemanni in the German/French border, the Burgundians in the Rhone valley and the Visigoths in the Aquitaine region and Spain. These Germanic-speaking groups had a profound effect on the Latin spoken in their respective regions, altering both the pronunciation and the syntax. They also introduced a number of new words: perhaps as much as 15% of modern French comes from Germanic words, including many terms and expressions associated with their social structure and military tactics.
Linguists typically divide the languages spoken in medieval France into three geographical subgroups: Langue d'oïl and Langue d'oc are the two major groups; the third group, Franco-Provençal, is considered a transitional language between the two other groups. The Oïl–Oc divide is broadly comparable to the divide illustrated by the use of "yes" in English and "aye" in Scots.
Langue d'oïl, the languages which use oïl (in modern usage, oui) for "yes", is the language group in the north of France. These languages, like Picard, Walloon, Francien and Norman, were influenced by the Germanic languages spoken by the Frankish invaders. From the time period Clovis I on, the Franks extended their rule over northern Gaul. Over time, the French language developed from either the Oïl language found around Paris (the Francien theory) or from a standard administrative language based on common characteristics found in all Oïl languages (the lingua franca theory).
Langue d'oc, the languages which use oc for "yes", is the language group in the south of France and northern Spain. These languages, such as Gascon and Provençal, have relatively little Frankish influence.
(Modern French has two words for "yes", oui and si; the latter is used to contradict negative statements. Si derives from Latin sic "thus", and is cognate to the word for "yes" in Spanish, Italian, and Catalan. Oïl/oui derive, according to Larousse, from Latin hoc ille "thus he (did)".)
The early middle ages also saw the influence of other linguistic groups on the dialects of France:
From the 5th to the 8th centuries, Celtic-speaking peoples from southwestern Britain (Wales, Cornwall, Devon) travelled across the English Channel, both for reasons of trade and as a result of the Anglo-Saxon invasions of England. They established themselves in Bretagne (Brittany). Their language was a dialect of the Brythonic languages, which has been named Breton in more recent centuries. It is part of the larger Celtic language family, though the modern dialects reflect a noticeable influence from French in their vocabulary.
From the 6th to the 7th centuries, the Vascons crossed over the Pyrénées, a mountain range in the south of France. Their presence influenced the Occitan language spoken in southwestern France, resulting in the dialect called Gascon.
Scandinavian vikings invaded France from the 9th century onwards and established themselves in what would come to be called Normandie (Normandy). They took up the langue d'oïl spoken there and contributed many words to French related to maritime activities, amongst other things.
With their conquest of England in 1066, the Normans brought their language. The dialect that developed there as a language of administration and literature is referred to as Anglo-Norman. Anglo-Norman served as the language of the ruling classes and commerce in England from the time of the conquest until 1362, when the use of English became dominant again. Because of the Norman Conquest, the English language has borrowed a considerable amount of its vocabulary from French.
The Arab peoples also supplied many words to French around this time period, including words for luxury goods, spices, trade stuffs, sciences and mathematics.
For the period up to around 1300, some linguists refer to the oïl languages collectively as Old French (ancien français). The earliest extant text in French is the Oaths of Strasbourg from 842; Old French became a literary language with the chansons de geste that told tales of the paladins of Charlemagne and the heroes of the Crusades.
By the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts in 1539 King Francis I made French the official language of administration and court proceedings in France, ousting the Latin that had been used before then. With the imposition of a standardised chancery dialect and the loss of the declension system, the dialect is referred to as Middle French (moyen français). Following a period of unification, regulation and purification, the French of the 17th to the 18th centuries is sometimes referred to as Classical French (français classique), although many linguists simply refer to French language from the 17th century to today as Modern French (français moderne).
The foundation of the Académie française (French Academy) in 1634 by Cardinal Richelieu created an official body whose goal has been the purification and preservation of the French language. This group of 40 members is known as the Immortals, not, as some erroneously believe, because they are chosen to serve for the extent of their lives (which they are), but because of the inscription engraved on the official seal given to them by their founder Richelieu—"À l'immortalité" ("to the Immortality (of the French language)"). The foundation still exists and contributes to the policing of the language and the adaptation of foreign words and expressions. Some recent modifications include the change from software to logiciel, packet-boat to paquebot, and riding-coat to redingote. The word ordinateur for computer was however not created by the Académie, but by a linguist appointed by IBM (see fr:ordinateur).
From the 17th to the 19th centuries, France was the leading power of continental Europe; thanks to this, together with the influence of the Enlightenment, French was the lingua franca of educated Europe, especially with regards to the arts, literature, and diplomacy; monarchs like Frederick II of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia could both speak and write in French.
Through the Académie, public education, centuries of official control and the role of media, a unified official French language has been forged, but there remains a great deal of diversity today in terms of regional accents and words. For some critics, the "best" pronunciation of the French language is considered to be the one used in Touraine (around Tours and the Loire River valley), but such value judgments are fraught with problems, and with the ever increasing loss of lifelong attachments to a specific region and the growing importance of the national media, the future of specific "regional" accents is difficult to predict.
There is some debate in today's France about the preservation of the French language and the influence of English (see franglais), especially with regard to international business, the sciences and popular culture. There have been laws (see Toubon law) enacted which require that all print ads and billboards with foreign expressions include a French translation and which require quotas of French-language songs (at least 40%) on the radio. There is also pressure, in differing degrees, from some regions as well as minority political or cultural groups for a measure of recognition and support for their regional languages.